The International Folk-Lore Congress of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, July, 1893/A Kind of Worship of the Dead in Finland

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(From the Researches in Finnish Mythology by the late Prof. Julius Krohn.)

The Finns in Finland are divided into two tribes, the Tavasts and the Carels. The former, who had settled in the west part of the country, came under the influence of the Swedish rule, and the occidental division of the latter again became dependents of the Russian empire, and of the Oriental church. Only three of their westmost countries were separated from the rest of Carelia and surrendered to Sweden in 1323. Of these countries two were situated at the seaboard, but the third one, called Savo, lay in the interior of the country by the lake Saimac, the outflow of which is through the cataract of Matra, the second Niagara in the world. This population in Savo became the proper colonists of the interior of Finland. The Tavasts, as well as the Carels, certainly made long shooting and fishing expeditions into the wilderness, but they always returned to their native places, where they lived in large village communities. The Savolax people again appreciated more individual liberty and independent ' household. As soon as the native place had become unable to satisfy this want, they moved farther into the country. Their own hunting-grounds soon were inhabited, and they did not find any other expedient than to occupy the wildernesses in Tavastia and Carelia.

This could naturally not be done in a friendly manner, but the Savolax people often had to endure bloody attacks from both sides. Nevertheless their colony made great progress in the 16th and 17th centuries, so that besides their original territory by the lake Saimaa at present almost all of Finland north of the 62d and 63d degrees of latitude is inhabited by a population from Savolax. But this is not enough. When the Swedish realm during the Thirty Years War was enlarged, a great many of these settlers were sent to the conquered provinces, as, for instance, to Livonia and Pomerania and particularly to Ingria, where, up to this day, the population around St. Petersburg is of Finnish and for the most part of Savolaxian extraction. They were also called by the Swedish Government to settle in the woody border-land between Sweden and Norway and the descendants of these Savolax people are still living in Vermland. Not even here was their disposition for colonization satisfied, but the Finns in Vermland took a very active part in the attempts at colonization made by the Swedish Government in the 17th century, on the banks of the River Delaware in America.

Concerning the Savolax people in the 16th century we know that, although they had long ago been converted to Christianity, they kept up many of their heathen customs and put up many of their carved idols in places where they intended to settle. Of another heathen custom, which was attended to immediately at the founding of a colony, there are still some memorials left. As they throw light upon the important question of the worship of the dead, and at the same time show how a religious cult can degenerate into a mere conventional custom, I take the liberty to call your attention to them for a few moments, ladies and gentlemen.

When one or several members of a tribe or family had moved to a new place of abode, the first care of the settlers was to select for the farm a place for "karsikko," that is to say, they left a grove of trees in a suitable place in the vicinity of the house. In this grove a tree was lopped when someone in the house died, and this was repeated for every one who died at the farm, for grown up people as well as for children, for members of the family as well as for servants. Prom the moment the first tree was lopped they began to sacrifice there to the dead. These sacrifices which were not performed separately for each of the dead persons, but for all of them together, were of many kinds. When a bullock was killed at the farm the first dish of cooked food was carried to the grove. When in spring the first fish was caught the dead person's share of the food must be set apart, before any one was allowed to taste it. In autumn, at harvest time, a birch-bark basket of every kind of corn was taken to the place of sacrifice; in the same manner they did with the crust of rye-bread. If at any time they had received a comparatively large sum of money, a small copper was taken to the place of sacrifice before they could use this money, to some other purpose.

The earliest change concerning the "karsikko," that took place was when they ceased to look upon the menials and servants as belonging to the family. They were not thought capable of doing harm in any way to the persons living at the farm. Another change in this custom took place, when they, by and by, ceased to snag a special tree for the children, and then later on they did it for no other grown up people than for the host and hostess, and generally also for the oldest son. In the course of time the grove of sacrifice was reduced to a single tree, which retained the name of "karsikko." In a suitable place in the vicinity of the farm, generally either by the road or at the sea-shore, a sturdy fir was chosen—hard-wood trees were never used—and the dry branches were snagged off from below, but the sound ones were left. When then at the farm an esteemed person died, for whom it was considered necessary to make a sacrifice, the lowest sound branch was lopped from the tree, and the sacrificing at the foot of the tree commenced. In the same manner a branch from the "karsikko" tree was lopped at the death of every one of the more esteemed members of the family, and thus that tree became the common "karsikko" of the dead. Such a tree has been found in the parish of Vütasaari in central Finland. It was an old fir, so thick that two men could barely measure its periphery with their arms. The tradition tells that it had been planted at the foundation of the farm, that always before some one in the family died, a branch fell down, and that when the last member of the family, an old woman died, the fir itself broke down.

When they now a days make a "karsikko," the tree is lopped along part of the stem from the lower end upwards, and from some place the bark is excorticated—sometimes the side is carved quite even— and in the bark the dead persons initials, the year of his birth and that of his death, and sometimes, also, the dates are cut. But not all the "karsikkos," are made of growing trees. The end of a board, in which they have carved the above-mentioned marks and then fastened it on to the wall of a cold house, is also called "karsikko." In the same manner, they cut the defunct's initials, the year of his birth and that of his death, in a large stone that happens to be near the court-yard, or also in a slab of stone that is put against the wall of a house, and this is then also called "karsikko."

To the worship of the dead belongs also "karsikko," which the persons who follow the dead to his grave, make on the way. They lop a tree, cut in it the usual marks, and take a dram to the memory of the dead. In the " karsikko " thus made they leave one branch like an arm, generally pointing towards the church. During a passage by boat, the "karsikko" is made at some place where they stop, the oarsmen relieving each other. If in that case there should not be found any fir trees, but only birches, they carve the end of a board, which then is nailed to a tree. Sometimes the "karsikko "is made in a rock. In the parish of Kristine, at the shore of Louhivesi, there is a steep mountain, called the Graphic Mountain. On the side of it, which is five fathoms high and two fathoms wide, the dead persons, initials are cut, which their followers have done. Beneath some of them are also the year of their death and a cross.

Still another kind of "karsikko" there is, viz.: those erected to the memory of some misfortune or some remarkable event. They are made by lopping a tree and carving in it the year, or by erecting a stone with similar marks on the spot. Between the parishes of Nurmes and Sotkamo at the eastern frontier of Finland, a traveller saw, in 1893, by the road, a fir, in which they had with an axe cut through the bark the image of a man, and beneath it some marks, probably the year. From the post-boy he learned that near the place, on the other side of the road, a mad woman had a few years ago hung herself. In the parish of Kijanta in northern Finland the "karsikko" was made on account of a successful fishing; such a one was also to be found on the shore of the parish-clerk! Along the torrents of Kijanta and below them, there were several "karsikkos," especially in the place where they had found precious pearl-mussels. "When somebody for the first time visited a farm, it was thought proper to make him a "karsikko." For this purpose they chose a fir tree which was lopped so that only the top, and in some cases also the lower branches were left. In the middle part of the tree, however, two branches were left, if the "karsikko" was made for a married person, and only one branch if it was for an unmarried one.[1] The branch of the tree dedicated to the guest pointed sometimes in the direction from whence the visitor had come. In the same way they acted when, on a long journey, a person came to the border of regions unknown to him. When they reached the last stretch of wood close to a town, the whole party stopped, and he who travelled here for the first time made himself a "karsikko." He lopped a tree all the way up to the top; an unmarried person left the top; a married one cut it so that there arose two tops; a widower spared not even the top. The lopped branches were put into a heap in a row on each side of the path leading to the tree. These trees were also called "brandy-trees," because he who had made the "karsikko" was obliged to offer a dram, which was taken on the heap of the lopped branches. Such "karsikkos" were also made for school-boys near the school town. Probably the servant did the cutting, but the boy was obliged to stand the treat.

Two miles up the country from the town of Fredrikshamn on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, there were by the road some lopped fir trees. The middle branches were cut out for middle-aged persons and the lowest for aged ones. When a tree was in a suitable place it was lopped for persons of different ages. Quite close to the town, there was such a fir in the village of Husula, behind the new cemetery of the town. It was mostly the Savolax people who made these " karsikkos," but it is not at all impossible that some of them were made by the part of the people from Tavastia, who lived in the nearest neighborhood of the Savolax people. At least they used in the parishes of Hollola and Nastola to make "karsikkos" for them who saw the town for the first time. In the parish of Titti there was a custom in near connection with the worship of the dead. On their way to town they made "karsikko" not only for him who travelled here for the first time, but for the old people too, whom they thought to make such a journey for the last time.

Prom the preceding we have found three different kinds of worship of the dead, represented by a sacrifice-grove, a special sacrifice-tree, and a memorial without any religious signification. The oldest form must have existed already at the time when the Savolax people emigrated from Vermland to Delaware. That they had not forgotten their Finnish magic in their long journey, is shown by a notice from the year 1653, when two Delaware-Finns, a man and a woman, were sentenced for sorcery.

Ladies and gentlemen! These first Finns in America have long ago changed their nationality. Towards the end of the 17th century they had fused with the Swedish colonists. Together with these they had in the 18th century accepted first the Dutch, and afterwards the English language. Their descendants are at present entirely Americans, whose Finnish extraction an historian would have difficulty in finding. Perhaps there are some of these honored folk-lorists, assembled at the Congress in Chicago, the ancestors of whom at the banks of the Delaware, have in the aforesaid manner honored their forefathers from the remote Finland. It may be!

  1. Also in the tree, lopped for a dead person on the way to the cemetery two branches towards the wood were left, if he had been married, but only one branch toward the road if he had been unmarried. In the same manner the trees were lopped, which at the burial were put up on each side of the door of the house. These trees were also called "karsikkoo."